You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Singer Marva Whitney dies at 68

Soul star was backup to James Brown

Marva Whitney, James Brown’s principal backup singer and onstage foil during the soul star’s late-’60s heyday, died Dec. 23. She was 68.

Whitney’s passing was announced on her official Facebook page. No cause of death was revealed, but England’s New Musical Express reported she died from pneumonia complications. She had suffered a stroke in 2009 while performing in Australia.

Born Marva Ann Manning in Kansas City, Kansas, Whitney performed with her family’s Manning Gospel Singers and R&B act Tommy Gadson & the Derbys before becoming a mainstay of Brown’s live show from 1967-69. She told Brown’s biographer RJ Smith that the vocalist reshaped her style: “I learned to do…what Mr. Brown called ‘on the one.’ See, I didn’t sing on the one, and that doesn’t come overnight.”

She accompanied Brown’s crack band on his 1968 tour of Asia and Southeast Asia, playing USO dates for servicemen in Vietnam. She said she made the potentially hazardous trip because, in her words, “The soldiers needed to see a sister who wasn’t an Oreo cookie.”

Backed by the Brown band and produced by Soul Brother No. 1, Whitney cut several singles for King Records. The biggest of them, “It’s My Thing (You Can’t Tell Me Who to Sock It To”), an answer to the Isley Brothers’ hit “It’s Your Thing,” reached No. 19 on the U.S. R&B chart in 1969. It lent its name to the singer’s album of that year.

After Whitney quit Brown’s group, she recorded without success for Excello’s Nashboro imprint and the Isleys’ T-Neck Records. However, her best-known work lived on in samples: Her Brown-produced tracks “It’s My Thing” and “Unwind Yourself” were sampled by the likes of DJ Kool, Sway and, just last year, chart-topping rapper Mac Miller.

Whitney’s 2006 collaboration with Japanese funk band Osaka Monorail led to a new full-length album, “I Am What I Am,” and tours of Japan and Europe.

She outlived her former mentor and boss by six years: James Brown died on Christmas 2006.

More Scene

  • 'Atlanta' TV show premiere

    'Atlanta Robbin' Season' Will 'Show What Makes the City Tick,' Producer Says

    Marva Whitney, James Brown’s principal backup singer and onstage foil during the soul star’s late-’60s heyday, died Dec. 23. She was 68. Whitney’s passing was announced on her official Facebook page. No cause of death was revealed, but England’s New Musical Express reported she died from pneumonia complications. She had suffered a stroke in 2009 […]

  • Mr Chow 50th Anniversary celebration

    Mr. Chow 50th Anniversary Party Draws Stevie Wonder, Heidi Klum & More Stars

    Marva Whitney, James Brown’s principal backup singer and onstage foil during the soul star’s late-’60s heyday, died Dec. 23. She was 68. Whitney’s passing was announced on her official Facebook page. No cause of death was revealed, but England’s New Musical Express reported she died from pneumonia complications. She had suffered a stroke in 2009 […]

  • Paley Center for Media presents They

    African-American Showrunners Talk Strides in TV Representation

    Marva Whitney, James Brown’s principal backup singer and onstage foil during the soul star’s late-’60s heyday, died Dec. 23. She was 68. Whitney’s passing was announced on her official Facebook page. No cause of death was revealed, but England’s New Musical Express reported she died from pneumonia complications. She had suffered a stroke in 2009 […]

  • 'Annihilation' film premiere

    'Annihilation' Star Jennifer Jason Leigh Responds to Whitewashing Accusations

    Marva Whitney, James Brown’s principal backup singer and onstage foil during the soul star’s late-’60s heyday, died Dec. 23. She was 68. Whitney’s passing was announced on her official Facebook page. No cause of death was revealed, but England’s New Musical Express reported she died from pneumonia complications. She had suffered a stroke in 2009 […]

  • Viola Davis Women in the World

    Viola Davis on #MeToo: 'If You're Dedicated to Change, Let It Cost You Something'

    Marva Whitney, James Brown’s principal backup singer and onstage foil during the soul star’s late-’60s heyday, died Dec. 23. She was 68. Whitney’s passing was announced on her official Facebook page. No cause of death was revealed, but England’s New Musical Express reported she died from pneumonia complications. She had suffered a stroke in 2009 […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content